Too Precious to Be Wasted

Whether you opt for private or public cord-blood banking, doctors say the blood shouldn’t be wasted.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
Whether you opt for private or public cord-blood banking, doctors say the blood shouldn’t be wasted.
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Would you bank your baby’s cord blood if you knew that it might save his life, or the life of another family member, sometime in the future?

More Singaporean couples are. In fact, Dr Ashish Munjal, chief executive officer of Cryoviva Singapore, says that cord-blood banking numbers are on the rise worldwide, as more parents become aware of the benefits of the procedure. Cryoviva is one of three private cord-blood banks in Singapore, which keep the donor’s cord blood exclusively for a family’s use, for a fee. The others are Cordlife and Stemcord.

How does it save lives?

Cord blood is the blood that remains in a baby’s umbilical cord and placenta following his birth. The blood, which carried nutrients to the baby while he was in his mother’s womb, is rich in haematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cells and the matrixes of other primitive stem cells, and is known to help regenerate and rejuvenate the blood and immune system.

These stem cells can be preserved, and if needed, later transplanted to a compatible recipient, such as the baby, his sibling or another family member, to treat disorders such as cerebral palsy, diabetes and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, says Dr Ashish. 

Research has also revealed the potential of cord-blood stem cells to treat brain injuries and juvenile diabetes.

Once banked, cord blood can be accessed at any time in the future to assist in life-saving transplants. The stem cells in cord blood are similar to those found in adult bone marrow, which is why they are increasingly considered an alternative to it.

What’s more, cord-blood stem cells are believed to have a much higher potential for regeneration and repair. They are less likely to be recognised as a toxin, as well.

This means there is a lower chance of graft-versus-host disease, where the donor’s immune cells attack the patient’s. In addition, transplants using cord blood do not require an exact genetic match, unlike bone marrow transplants.

To date, more than 30,000 successful transplants have been conducted globally using stem cells from banked cord blood, says Dr Ashish.

“Umbilical cord-blood stem cells are younger and more primitive, grow faster, and are more tolerant to tissue mismatches,” says Dr Ann Tan, gynaecologist and obstetrician at the Women Fertility and Fetal Centre.

“It has been estimated that there is a one-in-217 chance of requiring the use of stem cells for treatment in a lifetime.”

Are there any risks?

Cord blood is extracted after the baby’s umbilical cord is clamped and cut. The blood, which would otherwise be treated as biological waste, is collected from the residual side of the cord that is attached to the placenta.

Dr Tan says the collection process is simple and painless, and doesn’t present any danger to either the baby or the mum.

And while it doesn’t affect the woman’s choice of birthing method, the process may cause her to lose a little more blood if she has undergone a caesarean section, because of the extra time it takes to collect the cord blood.

Is the procedure for me?

Dr Ashish says there are no disadvantages to cord-blood banking, although he does not recommend the procedure for individuals with a family history of certain genetic disorders. If you are unsure of your suitability, speak to your doctor.

As the cord-blood sample has to be collected right after the birth of your baby, it is crucial that you complete all the necessary formalities well ahead of time. This includes speaking to a doctor to find out more about cord-blood banking, its benefits and storage options; and determining your eligibility by filling up a consent form and health questionnaire.

The recommended storage term for cord blood is 21 years anywhere in the world, says Dr Ashish, who adds that you can expect to pay an average of $6,000 to $7,000 to store the cord blood for 21 years. 

What about donating it?
More mothers are donating their newborns’ cord blood, going by the rising numbers registered by the public cord-blood bank.
In 2014, the Singapore Cord Blood Bank (SCBB) received 3,927 cord-blood donations – a 67 per cent jump from 2,356 in 2010. Last year, it had received over 3,000 donations by November. The SCBB allows patients to search for an unrelated cord-blood match and use it to help with lifethreatening diseases. It stores about 11,000 cord-blood units now, and hopes to reach 15,000 units in five years.
The need to ramp up is pertinent, given that diseases such as blood cancer are on the rise, says Dr William Hwang, the SCBB’s medical director.
If you’re planning to donate, Dr Hwang recommends that you talk to your gynae at around 28 weeks and contact the SCBB at 32 weeks. You’ll have to go through an informed consent process, where you’ll be counselled about the implications and processes, and fill in a medical history form. Only after this is done will the public bank collect your cord blood.
If a person needs his previously donated cord blood for himself and it is still in the bank’s inventory, it will be released without a fee – if the transplant physician has advised that the unit will be suitable for his treatment.
Whether you opt for public or private cord-blood banking, the bottom line is that the blood should not be wasted. “Hopefully, in the future, no cord blood will be discarded,” says Dr Hwang. “It is such a precious resource.”